Schools advance solutions to foster respectful discourse and “healthy conflict” among students.
by Bill Donahue

Every page-turning novel and gripping Netflix series requires at least one pivotal conflict—a defining moment in which key characters have a heated exchange, come to blows, or otherwise engage in some sort of powder-keg battle. Although such exchanges make for compelling works of fiction, moments of intense conflict can lead to unwanted outcomes in the real world.
That’s why James I. Hozier believes every high school student should be able to have respectful discourse with peers and “healthy conflict” rooted in trust and respect. Such lessons were especially important at the outset of the 2021-22 school year, as students returned to the classroom after so many months of disruption caused by the pandemic. 
“This year we were very worried about that,” says Hozier, assistant principal for academic affairs at Father Judge High School, an all-boys Catholic high school in Northeast Philadelphia. “For 18 months you had kids sitting at home by themselves, not sitting in school where they have to watch what they say. They got very comfortable where they were.”
In response, Father Judge set up a series of solutions-based presentations covering everything from mental health to substance abuse awareness to student leadership. On top of existing resources, such as on-campus guidance counselors and social workers, these presentations were designed to help students navigate a confusing time in a confusing world. 
Father Judge bills itself as a school were students will discover a “climate of academic excellence and college preparation.” It’s also rooted in the teachings of Saint Francis de Sales, promoting values such as respect, patience, gentleness, gratitude, and positivity.
“Everything we do revolves around the idea of being a ‘Salesian gentleman,’” Hozier says. “We want each student to know the things you do and the decisions you make not only affect you, but they also affect someone else. Even when there are conflicts, we make students meet and discuss what happened. ‘What led to the conflict? Was your reaction appropriate? What is your plan if it happens again?’ 
“We try to impart this in our classes and everything we do discipline-wise,” he continues. “It’s part of helping each student develop [into] who you are as a person, so when you leave here it’s going to follow you, because it’s embedded in you.” 
A course focused on current events helps students engage in instructor-led conversations about the news of the day, including controversial topics such as the political climate. More often than not, these discussions reveal multiple sides of an issue, thereby enabling students to hear perspectives with which they may not agree. Likewise, an active donor community has enabled the school to fund necessary resources to facilitate student growth, while an engaged alumni network exposes students to the wisdom of their predecessors. Hozier says graduates often return to the school to share their firsthand life experiences with the student body, including adversity they have faced and what they learned by having gone through it. 
Father Judge is hardly alone in its quest to help students obtain a broader, more informed view of the world around them. Quaker schools such as Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood and Abington Friends School in Jenkintown promote far-reaching concepts such as diversity, equity, and social justice. Such guidance is essential when young minds see politicians, athletes, and other luminaries indulging in behaviors that would be considered unacceptable on the playground, let alone in a society of civilized adults.
At Father Judge, Hozier suggests skills such as compromise and the ability to have constructive disagreements are just as critical as academic proficiency. By developing these skills in adolescence, students will be prepared for college, the working world, or wherever life takes them when they leave high school behind. 
“Students can have the tough conversations here,” he adds. “When students do have problems, they have teachers and a lot of people to talk to so we can resolve these situations when they arise.”
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, December 2021.